Roll Call (Washington, D.C.) August 11, 1997

New Study Identifies 75 Seats That Should Be In Play for '98 Election

by Charles E. Cook, Political Surveyor columnist

With relatively little going on in politics during August of a non-election year, it's useful to look through the studies of previous elections for clues of what may happen in the future.

One interesting statistical study was released last month by the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy, a group promoting alternative means of voting, such as proportional and multi-member districts.

Two central points jump out from the 64-page report, titled "Monopoly Politics: Why Demography is Destiny in Most Congressional Elections...and What It Means for Political Reform."

First, most Congressional districts are non-competitive, and the districts are drawn either to protect an incumbent or a party's hold on the area. Therefore, the report says, candidate performance has nothing to do with how much money a challenger has and everything to do with the racial, economic, and political makeup of the constituents in that district.

Certain districts have a propensity to vote Democratic, almost regardless of the identity and funding level of the GOP challenger, while others will almost certainly go Republican, again regardless of the Democrat or the amount of money spent on the race.

In many cases, when incumbent protection is the primary criterion for where the district lines go, the report argues that "redistricting is quite simply a process in which legislators choose their constituents before their constituents choose them."

Beyond just whether districts are competitive in general elections, the CVD report says that "more than half of all incumbents faced no primary opposition of any sort in each House election in the years of our study, 1982-94."

The report studies the election results of House seats and compares them with how President Clinton fared in the same district. (The report considers Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) a Democrat).

Democrats won 119, or 93.7 percent, of the 127 districts in which the President won by 5 or more points above his national average. Republicans won 135, or 89 percent, of the 151 districts in which the President ran 5 or more points below his national performance.

While not preordained, it is very difficult for a challenger to win in such lopsided districts and, for the most part, winning is not a function of money.

Indeed, 88 of the 135 Republicans in those districts where Clinton ran 5 points or more behind his national numbers were incumbents who had back-to-back, 20-point victory margins in 1994 and 1996, while 83 of the 119 Democrats winning in districts where Clinton 5 or more points above average had victory margins of 20 points in 1994 and 1996.

What does all of this mean for 1998?

Based upon a combination of past Congressional and presidential results, the report projects that 125 Republican House Members will be re-elected in 1998 by a landslide, 47 more by a comfortable margin, and another 19 by a somewhat slimmer margin, leaving 37 more quite vulnerable.

The report also suggests that 113 Democrats will win in a landslide, 32 more will win comfortably, and another 24 with some room to spare, leaving 38 Democrats highly vulnerable.

The 75 vulnerable seats create a variety of potential outcomes. Republicans could add to their majority, or Democrats could take back the House with a nominal majority.

Robert Richie, the CVD's executive director, doesn't offer a specific seat gain or loss prediction, but he does point to one key set of numbers in the study.

Clinton outperformed his national average in just 196 districts, according to the report, running behind it in 239. The CVD argues that there are more very liberal districts than there are very conservative ones, which makes sense. Democrats tend to run up whopping numbers in minority districts, while Republicans do not win their staunchest district by nearly as wide margins, hence they "waste" fewer votes.

Still, that disparity between the number of districts in which Clinton ran ahead or behind his national average is important, leading the report to conclude that "there may be a built-in conservative majority in the House, but it need not be a Republican majority."

Those Democrats stubbornly clinging to districts in which the President ran well behind his national average, though fewer in number than in past years, would likely make up the difference if Democrats were to manage to pick up a slim majority in the House.

Past electoral performance can be used with some reliability to establish which seats should be safe for the two parties. But once it's determined that a seat is in play, candidate recruitment, fundraising, the quality of the campaigns waged, and national tides become critical, and to their credit, the report's authors did not attempt to deny it.

Just which seats are the most vulnerable to turnover? Democratic incumbents identified in the report as being most vulnerable are Reps. Walter Capps (Calif), Loretta Sanchez (Calif), Ted Strickland (Ohio), Max Sandlin (Texas), Charlie Stenholm (Texas), and Jay Johnson (Wis). Three Democrats open seats are also on that list: Rep. Glenn Poshard's (Ill) 19th district, Rep. Lee Hamilton's (Ind) 9th district, and Rep. Scotty Baesler's (Ky) 6th district.

For Republicans, two incumbents stand out as most vulnerable in the study: Reps. Anne Northup (Ky) and Bill Redmond (NM).